Thuli Weerasena relives his Vietnamese experience at Bánh Bánh, right in the heart of Peckham Rye.
Vietnam has a special place in my heart. It was the first country outside of Europe that I travelled to without my parents. Fuelled by a sense of independence and adventure, I was amazed by a country steeped in a tragic yet distinguished history. From the picture-postcard beauty of Hạ Long Bay, the Zippo lighters of American GIs on sale in shops, the wafts of tuk-tuk smoke in the heaving cities, the storms that pour down with that hot and pungent tropical rain, and the bounty of incredible street food on offer for pennies – the sights, smells, and tastes of Vietnam are something I will never forget.
I was transported back there by the delights on offer at Bánh Bánh, a cosy canteen stylishly decorated with exposed brick, hanging bulbs, and minimalist wooden furnishing offset by a bright white marble bar. Blink and you might think that you have ended up in another one of countless other hipster joints that have popped up all over Peckham. You would be wrong, however, as Bánh Bánh is run by five siblings, who were born and raised within walking distance of the restaurant and have based their menu on handwritten recipes from their grandma, who was a chef in Saigon in the 1940s.
The menu is split into ‘Smallish,’ ‘Biggish,’ and ‘Classic’ items, meaning that you can opt for ordering starters and mains, or, to make the most of the family-feel of the place, you are actively encouraged to tuck-in and share a spread of dishes on offer. Everything you might expect from a standard Vietnamese restaurant on these shores are included, such as Pho, Summer Rolls, and Noodle Salad. But, there are also several dishes I have never come across before, which captured my imagination. The standout of these was the house special: bánh khot pancakes. Slightly bigger than bitesize morsels, made from a turmeric and coconut batter and each topped with a juicy looking prawn. They arrive still sizzling in a griddle, with a side of fresh leaves and herbs in a bamboo basket. As I take a bite of the pancake, which is crispy on the bottom and gooey in the middle, I forget that I am in Peckham on a cold December night, as the explosion of seafood and exotic flavour on my palate evokes memories of sunshine and beaches in Vietnam. They are so good that we are left with no choice but to order a second round.
The rest of the menu is no less impressive. The BBQ beef, ground beef marinated with lemongrass and wrapped in betel leaves before being grilled over charcoal, is crispy and smoky and tastes like you are taking a bite of a burger, but with more depth of flavour. Chicken wings, pan-fried with a sticky glaze composed of a perfect marriage of fish sauce, garlic, and chilli are piquant and packed with umami but also clean and delicate – which encapsulates the subtle balance of Vietnamese cuisine. A grilled aubergine number is soft and pillowy, but has enough body to carry the herbs and spices that accompany it.
The dishes we had, as well as everything else on the menu, is priced at under a tenner. This means that you can try almost everything on offer in one sitting if you want to, without breaking the bank. The service is friendly and relaxed, which makes for a great dining experience if you go with friends and family. Bánh Bánh would also make an elegant date spot, however, you might end up fighting with your date over who gets to eat the last bánh khot pancake! They are also open for lunch, offering banh mi, rice bowls, and pho. The locals have clocked that is not your run-of-the-mill Asian eatery but something special, and soon the rest of London will too. So, I recommend making the journey down to Peckham Rye before the queues start winding out of the door and onto the street.
Bánh Bánh, 46 Peckham Rye, London, SE15 4JR, 020 3499 5684
Meal for three, including drinks and service = £100. Walk-ins only for groups of six or fewer.
Images: Thuli Weerasena and @banhbanhhq